An Unsettling Conversation
Caroline waited impatiently for Wyatt to be released from his duties as pilot for that day and sharing duties with the steersman who was more familiar with most of the river than Wyatt was. After tying up as they had on the previous night, it would be early tomorrow before they put in to shore, opposite Helena for the cattle to be offloaded.
He joined her for dinner as had become a pleasantly anticipated interlude of an evening when he was free. She seemed tense that evening, and impatient as well as annoyed over something.
“Are you feeling well, Miss Henstridge?” He seemed concerned for her.
She smiled stiffly. “Just a slight headache. It will soon pass. I ordered for you when I first came in and saw you approaching. I hope you do not mind.”
“I am grateful that you did so. I had not realized that I was likely to be late until the steersman reminded me of the time. I had much on my mind.”
They settled down as the waiter brought them a soup, and they began their dinner. After she had dabbed at her lips with her napkin and they waited for the next course, she spoke to him about something that caused him to hesitate and to spill a little of the wine he had been pouring for her.
“Did you have a profitable evening last night?”
He paused. “In what way?” Might she have heard of that game?
“Now where did you hear that?” He was smiling at her. “I do not usually gamble.”
She thought about his answer, analyzing the words and they way he said them, teasing more meaning from them than he was comfortable with.
“You are not answering my question, sir. I heard that you gambled with my brother.”
“I don’t think I would call it gambling.” She tasted the wine and then drank more of it.
She persisted. “What would you call it? What other word is there for it? I heard that you won.”
He did not like the way the conversation was going and tried to correct it.
“It was a business transaction. Does anyone ever win at gambling? It foments greater recklessness and risk taking. Gamblers rarely win in the longer term.” She had to laugh, but it was a laugh of slight annoyance.
“You are asking a question to avoid answering a question, as a woman often does. You are striving very hard to avoid answering my question.”
He looked embarrassed.
“Yes, I am. I had hoped that what happened last night, might not be common knowledge on the boat quite so soon.” She decided that a more direct approach might allow her to learn more.
“Did you gamble with my brother last night?”
He poured himself a glass of wine and then topped up hers, realizing that he could not easily avoid answering her more direct question, which she would obviously persist with until he answered her to her satisfaction.
“Yes, I did. And no!” He was still vacillating. She was not sure how to take such an evasive answer.
“Did you win? And do not try to evade my question as you seem to be attempting to do, with some vague distraction or another question.”
He smiled at her. “Yes. I won. I could not lose, so I did not regard it as gambling, hence my evasion. The outcome was more like a contrived certainty.” She moved beyond his strange way of stating it.
“Thank you!” She went on to her next question. “What did you win? Or more to the point, what did he lose?” It was obvious that she would not let go of it until she knew everything as far as he dare tell her. He had not planned on telling her anything of that game; what he had won, or what her brother had lost. She would have found out for herself soon enough when her brother did not arrive home, but that would have been further out in time, unlike now. He could no longer hide it. He looked directly at her.
“I won everything that he possessed and that he had title to, and everything else sitting on the table at that time.”
“The estate? Our home? However, it was not my home anymore. Those cattle also?”
There was no point in trying to deny anything. He nodded. “Everything!”
Her lips tightened, and a slight furrow marred her brow. She almost preferred it when he was evading answering her. Her obvious discomfort as he sat down with her had been because of this. He would like to know how she had heard of it. None of those at the table last night would have said anything, and yet someone had.
She continued. “I suppose I can say nothing, nor do I have a right to say anything. I am very disappointed, of course, but I had no say in what he did with what was his after I left and Father died. I am only a mere woman after all”—heads had rolled because someone had mistakenly thought of the female of the human species as a mere woman—“and did not figure in any of that, even though I was the one who worked hard to put the estate back on its feet a couple of years after that war and from the time when I was about sixteen to when I left.” She shrugged her shoulders as if in resignation. “I can say nothing. It was his to lose, even though I hoped he might actually be trying, for once, to learn what he needed to do to make the estate pay for itself as it used to. A forlorn hope, obviously.” She was saddened to realize that all she had remembered of that place that she had called home for so long was now lost to her.
“That must be one of the few times he ever lost. He cheated you know, though few others seemed to realize it, or he would have been thrown overboard or worse. I never heard of him losing so much before.” Another thought occurred to her. “How did you win if he cheated? What did you mean when you said, contrived certainty?” He smiled at her.
“That is the embarrassing part, and I am loath to admit it to you, as it is not my proudest moment, but I knew that he cheated, and so I cheated much better than he did.”
She smiled at that peculiar admission and seeing the almost sheepish look on his face, realized that it must be true. No man would easily admit to cheating if he had not done so, and her brother would not have wagered so rashly if he thought he might not win by whatever devious means he might employ. That admission puzzled her, but she did not dwell upon it. A man could be one way with a woman, and present a different face to the men he came across, especially to a weasel of a man like her brother. She sat and considered what Wyatt had said. It would not change her plans, though she really did not have any. Now, she really would have to go up to her grandmother.
Their dinner was brought to the table and served to them without them noticing. The knowledge that her brother had lost all his inheritance did not seem to have affected her appetite for the chicken. He watched her finish her wine. She was in a strange mood, almost one of controlled anger against either him or her brother, though she managed to smile at him from time to time and spoke civilly to him. He did not refill her glass with wine but poured her a glass of lemonade instead, only to see that she ignored it, having seen what he had done, and in her rebellious perversity began to drink his wine instead.
“And where is he now? My brother.” She answered her own question. “Probably in a drunken stupor somewhere. I suppose I can say nothing. I had no expectations there, but if you do not mind, there are still some personal possessions that I will need to recover from my home—if he has not sold them off before now or thrown them out—and you will need to get to know the people who work the estate or they might work against you at first, and I would not like to see it go downhill any further. They would be the losers. So if you like, I shall introduce you to them.”
“Thank you, but I had hoped that none of that would be necessary. I had hoped that you would learn none of this. You do not seem to be upset over it, but I suspect that you might be.”
He did not know the half of it. “I would be upset. You always were good at hiding your real feelings from others.” She looked sharply at him. How could he possibly know that about her?
He caught that look and tried to recover. “I heard your brother say something like that to you when he first came aboard.” Had he? She could not remember much, other than it had been a tense exchange. “This is not going the way I had planned or hoped.”
She did not follow him. “What did you hope? That it could be hidden? I was bound to find out eventually.”
“Of course you would find out. I had hoped that no one, especially not you, would find out so quickly nor about that game last night and would not quiz me about it. Who told you?”
“That is not important. How could I not learn about it? My brother would have had to tell me something about why he no longer owned the property or lived there. I doubt he will wish to admit it to me when or if he cares to show his face. You would also have had to claim your winnings. I would have heard eventually, sooner, rather than later.”
“I would not have claimed them!” She was not sure she could believe what he said. “And your brother would have said nothing to you about it.”
“What do you mean? You cannot hide something like that. Of course I would have found out.”
“Not this way. You would not have found out if things had gone as I had intended.” She waited for him to explain. “A man should not win by cheating as I did, no matter how necessary it was. I had a deeper purpose. I gave all that he won, back to those who lost it at the table, and even more than that to repay them. I would have done the same on your behalf, but without telling you, except you have now made that difficult to do. You would have learned nothing about that wager from me or anyone else, and then, when you discovered that your brother had not returned home with you and was not about to appear, it would have dawned on you that something may have happened to him and that you would then be the owner of the estate and . . . .” He left the rest unsaid, but he had said enough to puzzle her. She was confused and had not heard or understood all that he had said.
“Why would you wish to give it back to my brother after he tried to cheat you?”
“I was not going to give it back to your brother, but to you!” She had missed something in what he had said and was saying.
“He will not stand idly by and let you do that even if I were to accept it. He is more likely to think to shoot you in the back to recover what you won from him, just as he thought to kill me that night. In truth, he would have even more reason to think to kill me if you were to do that.” Wyatt was smiling at her. She realized that he must already know that. She drank more of his wine and did not notice him pour some of the lemonade into it once she put it down again. Her mind was far away as she stewed upon what had happened. “Did he try to recover those things from you?”
“He hoped to. He intended to. He tried. We both know what your brother was capable of.” A suspicion crossed her mind.
“Where is he now? I cannot imagine he took losing anything easily, and yet you are still here.”
“He didn’t take it easily. As you surmised, he wanted me dead for admitting to cheating him out of everything.”
“You told him that you cheated?” She could not believe he might be so foolish as to do that.
“Yes. I told him. I intended that he would know.” She obviously thought him to have lost his reason to admit that to her brother.
“I don’t understand.” Another thought caught her. “You said when he did not arrive home, and something else along the same vein. Is he . . . is he alive?”
“Some questions are best not asked, Miss Henstridge, even though you would eventually find out. However, you did ask, and you deserve a direct response to that question. No, he is not alive. A most unfortunate accident.” He qualified what he said. “Almost an accident.”
“I am not sure that I can believe you.”
“About the accident, or about him not being alive? Why not? I have never directly lied to you.”
She considered his answer, repeating it, digesting it. “Never directly lied to me.” She looked at him and saw that he was still smiling kindly upon her. “Gambling, not gambling. The partial truth that is a lie, the lie that is made to seem to be true. You would have had no reason to lie to me or mislead me until now.”
“Not even now. Why would I lie now?” She still did not fully understand.
“You are suddenly being devious, Mr. Wyatt. You are a stickler for the truth even when it hurts. I have discovered that, but now . . . now, you would mislead me if you could do so, indirectly, yes, with the excuse that it would be for my own good, just as you tried to deny all knowledge of that game last night when I first asked you.”
He cleared his throat and blushed. “I am not proud of that, the cheating, or of hoping to mislead you, but it needed to be done." He sheepishly admitted to her, something he would have preferred to have kept hidden. "Your brother went for a swim late last night.”
She chuckled unbelievingly at his calmly outrageous statement and drank some of the diluted wine. “He cannot swim! He would never willingly go for a swim.” She was puzzled. “Was he alive when he went for his swim?”
“Almost! By the time he got to the water, then, no! I told you that he died in . . . almost an accident.” She had to giggle at the almost devious way he said that. What he was saying and suggesting so flippantly, almost flippantly, did not seem to upset her.
He continued to explain. “The stern wheel, which he fell into with some little assistance from me after we struggled, has very little clearance for a man to squeeze into, and those blades on the wheel”—he shook his head as he thought of it—“they do a lot of damage. If he had survived that, he would have found some way, somehow, to kill me when I might least expect it, then the others at the table who had also witnessed his loss soon after that, and then you also. I could not allow that. I had not planned on telling you any of this, but you are persistent.”
She was shocked. “Do you realize that you and I are sitting here having dinner together, drinking wine and discussing your. . . murder…whatever you did to him . . . of my own brother, and I am not sure I can or should believe it, but why would you lie? You told me you would not lie to me.”
“It is true. Are you distressed over his death or my admitting that I almost killed him? I intended to kill him. If you are distressed I shall feel some regret, but not much.” She thought for a few moments.
“No. After what my brothers and father did and what he tried to do to me on this very boat, why should I be distressed? If I am honest about it, I am relieved. Who else knows of this?”
“You and I know how he died, because I just told you. Leonie and her father know that he is dead but do not know how he died. No one else knows anything, except that he is no longer on the boat, and I think it should stay that way.”
He raised his wine glass and drank to her as he smiled. She did not look distressed. “You are now free, Miss Henstridge, and can claim back your estate. Your grandmother will be pleased by all this, the way it worked out, even if she does not yet know how it happened, though she soon will.” She glanced at him sharply. He seemed to know a lot about her grandmother.
“If I had not told you what had happened, you would eventually have discovered that he did not join you or those cattle going ashore, and then it might seem reasonable to assume that he had somehow gone missing for whatever reason, like your father, or had fallen into the river in a drunken stupor, as you said. After a suitable period of time waiting for him and hearing nothing, you would have to assume that he was dead from some accident. You would become the sole surviving heir. You could then take over the estate that you once loved. I think you must have loved it deeply at one time, and it would not be so difficult to accept that—with your brother gone—it would become yours. I doubt his body will be found, and even if it is, I doubt he will be recognized with the damage that the wheel did to him. I think it may also have dismembered him.” He saw her shiver at that thought.
“Except I now know how I would have gained it. It does not seem right.” She regarded him with some suspicion. “Why would you give it away so easily? You won it from him.” He reached over and took her hand. She did not pull away.
“I do not want it because I did not win it fairly, as I told you, and I have no right to it. It is yours by right. I shall not claim it. In fact, I will deny ever having won it. You will inherit it, regardless.”
“An ethical cheat, no less! I am not sure that I want it with such a tale behind it.” She was being stubborn on principle.
“Please think about it. I do not want it. One should never look a gift horse in the mouth, Miss Henstridge, Caroline.”
“If I decide I want nothing to do with it, what will you do with it?”
“I told you. I shall go about my business on the river, and I shall deny having won it, despite this conversation.”
“You would lie!”
“Yes, Miss Henstridge, I would lie about it to another where I will not lie to you. Furthermore, I shall destroy all evidence that I did win it so that you must inherit your estate. Otherwise, I shall keep it for you until you change your mind, but I should warn you that it would go downhill very quickly with me on the river, and you vowing not to accept it from me out of some stubborn mood. In that regard, I was hoping you might help me there and take it over as you would have done had you learned none of this. You would be helping yourself as well as those others who live there and call it home.”
She was puzzled. “It was in debt. What if the bank decides to foreclose before I can bring it about?”
“It won’t!” How did he know that?
She continued. “It is very deep in debt. I am sure he didn’t tell you that when he wagered it.”
“He didn’t need to tell me. I already knew. It made no difference to me. Those debts will be easily settled once it is properly managed as I believe you used to do. I am sure the estate would rapidly recover under your care, whereas I know little about running an estate.” She looked at him, seeing him still smiling at her. He was hard to read.
“Another of those qualifying and very subjective words that I have learned to listen for from you. I suspect that the little you know, is much more than my brother ever knew.”
He smiled at her understanding of him now. “I have been on the river and at sea for several years, but yes, I do know something about running an estate, I will not deny it, but not as much as you do, even after being away from it for those years you were in Europe.”
“I am curious. What did you wager against the estate?”
“This boat, the Caroline. Your namesake, which I still own, of course.”
“So he died, and it was almost an accident? That is like being almost pregnant or being almost alive. It was either an accident, or it was not an accident.”
“It was a contrived accident. He was alive when he went into the wheel but not when he left it.”
“Just as you won that estate with contrived certainty, deception, cheating!” His earlier words and the strangeness of them had stuck with her.
“Something like that. I provoked him to do something unwise, against which I needed to defend myself, and in the process he struck his head on his way into that stern wheel and was lost overboard. That is why he is out there and I am here. I do hope you are not disappointed. Old Man River will tell no one, and the chances of his body being found are slim, and of being recognized, even less. So you are the only surviving sibling, and both of your brothers and father are dead.”
“What else are you contriving?” He looked at her and could barely suppress a chuckle at her jaundiced perception of him.
“I had rather not say. What a picture would be portrayed of me, contributing to the death of the brother, as well as of the father of the woman I—”
“Of the woman I…? Please continue.” He looked at her. She was smiling charmingly at him, but her eyes were not smiling. She was annoyed with him; he sensed that. “And just how did you contribute to my father’s death? The story was that he had disappeared.”
“…Of the young woman I am dining with. Not many women would be relaxing or would dine so easily with a man who admitted having a hand in such violence. No, Caroline. Your father did not just disappear. He died in New Orleans, and yes, I killed him to save my own life and the lives of others. I told you some of it when we were in Vicksburg that night.” She vaguely remembered him telling her something of that.
“I shall think about it. You would have been wiser to have said yes, straight away, which you just essentially did. So you killed my brother as well as my father? And never mind all this evasive flummery of contributing to their premature demises.” Not many young women would be able to relax with any man who had just calmly admitted to killing her brother and her father, both, but she was able to.
“Oh dear. I appear to have met my match in crossing wits with you, and you now know far too much about me and my abhorrent and violent character, though we seem quite well matched that way. You did shoot a man yourself not so long ago. I am not sure that I like the way this conversation is going. You might believe that I have such a vendetta against your family that I have my sights set upon you next.” She did not seem worried by that. If only she knew.
“That does not seem likely. You offered to give me back that estate. If you plan to murder me too [she obviously thought that to be unbelievable], I doubt you would give it back to me first. You have also had a dozen opportunities to see me off too, and throw me into the river, even in Liverpool, and yet I am still here.” He continued to smile at her understanding of the matter. “So you admit that you killed both my father and my brother. I think I must believe you, and yet I do not feel threatened by you. There were many men who would have killed either or both of them if they were given the chance. I even considered it myself more than once. It does not matter to me. Many times, I wished my father dead and both of my brothers after the pain they caused me. At least you didn’t kill Jefferson, though I would not care if you had.” He said nothing. She sighed and drank more of the wine. “Let us talk of something more pleasant, if that is possible after what we have just discussed so calmly. Though after that, anything would be pleasant.”
He cleared his throat. “I had thought of destroying those notes and saying nothing to anyone, and then you would have inherited, and no one the wiser. Somehow, however, you learned of that game and began asking your questions.”
“And being a man who would not lie to me, though you would lie to others, you were trying to evade answering me in every way you could, although when pressed directly, you eventually relented and told me of your winning.”
“When a woman persists along one line of questioning, it is a wise man who soon sees the futility of dragging it out any further.”
“So why did you not just destroy his promissory note?”
“I thought about it and realized that the safer course would be for me to say nothing and to hold on to that note for some time.”
“I recalled something I had overheard. That your brother had married. If he left a wife and possibly an heir, then he would have managed to cheat you there too. This way, he can’t.”
“So you were thinking of me?” She could not understand that.
He was smiling at her again. “Yes, Miss Henstridge, it seems that I was.”
“Why? You seem to have thought about me many times now. In Liverpool, on board the Osprey, that second night in my cabin on this boat, and then following that, in Vicksburg, and now.” She did not know the half of it. “Why? I think I am too much in your debt already.”
“Because it was once your home, and I believe there was a time when you loved it dearly. I sensed that in our conversations.”
“But what if I choose not to accept it?”
He smiled at her. “We went over that. I shall never claim it, and I shall vehemently deny knowing anything about it if anyone asks. I told you I would lie. Yes, there is one thing at least that I will readily lie about.”
“I find I cannot judge you for that. Where my family was concerned, it was sometimes safer to lie. I did. I am still not sure what to think. You are a strange man, Mr. Wyatt.”
“So I have been told.” She seemed to be less uneasy, but then he had told her more than he had ever intended to, to try to bring her around, except she had managed to corner him rather cleverly and had learned more than he had intended ever to disclose to her.
“I think, one minute, that I understand you, and then I find that I don’t.” How she had found out about that game, he did not know, but it was too late to fret about it now. He would rather have said nothing and let her find out that her brother was not on the boat when they reached Helena, and then she could have gradually recognized that she was the only one likely to be on that estate from that moment forward, and would have seen the necessity of her staying. Except for that possibility of an heir surfacing.
“You still seem uneasy. Understandable, I suppose, learning that a villain like me contributed to your brother being dead and knows more about the death of your father than might be comforting for a young woman to know.”
She seemed to be struggling with another thought. “I have a further question I would ask you.” He waited. “You told me what it was that you won. Was that all that you won?”